Before Overland approached me to write a regular column, I had never written one. Easy, thought I: a mere 800 words every quarter. I write stuff all the time: in the past year I’ve written hundreds of blog posts, reviews, sundry works of opinion journalism, talks, novels, theatre texts and poems. How could a column be any more difficult than any of those? Perhaps I could explore the early twentieth-century notion of a feuilleton, literary trifles for newspapers that became lucent prose in the hands of masters like Joseph Roth. I’ve always wanted to do that.
I am always blithely optimistic whenever I start work, which demonstrates a certain amnesia. What I should remember is that there’s a steep learning curve whenever I try anything new. Writing a column turned out to be harder than I expected. The first question, which assailed me every time Overland editor Jeff Sparrow sent out his email reminding contributors of the next deadline, was: what was it to be about?
My brief was broad. Too broad. It was putatively a column about reading and books. It was so broad that, as with this blog post, I would sit in my study staring at the books on my shelves in a mild state of panic. Perhaps I could write about reading poetry? But if so, which poetry? Poetry in translation? Maybe I could talk about why I like Lorca. Vallejo. Beowulf. Ingeborg Bachmann? Why don’t I write about her? But maybe that’s too singular…? Maybe I should write about why I like elegant letterpress pamphlets and small press chapbooks lovingly hand printed and tied up with ribbon, even though they don’t have spines and I have to pull the whole lot out in order to find one? Perhaps I could discuss the political in poetry. There’s an idea. But where should I begin? The Romantics? Contemporary Indigneous poetry? Or maybe I should just write a light piece about the poetry which I loved as a child and still love now. Perhaps I could enter the debate about poetry’s minority readership? I think too many things about it, and all of them contradictory. 800 words, remember.
One idea would do.
Ok, writing about poetry sends too many hares running in my head, all of them crashing into each other. And the deadline is now tomorrow.
A desperate sweep of my bookshelves, and I spot my collection of herbals. Herbals! I’ll write about herbals. And so I do. I study the piece that I’ve written and I see the clumsy joins, the elisions and glosses, the lack of the elegance I imagined was possible. I wish I were Joseph Roth, but I’m not. Between the idea. And the reality. Between the motion. And the act. Falls the Shadow. Still. Thanks, Overland.
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